RUGBY WEEKEND

Well, we come to the last weekend of Six Nations’ action, well day actually, and it looks to be quite a belter. Ireland finish their campaign against Italy (2.30), than Wales face England (5) at the Millenium Stadium in Cardiff to decide the winners of the tournament, and finally, France hope to finish what has been a dismal campaign for them, when they face Scotland (8).


 
Italy will prove a tough challenge for Ireland. Italy have been the most exciting team in this year’s 6 Nations, in my opinion, and they’ve made a huge improvement. They’ve already beaten France, and came close to beating England. They’re also a much fitter side than in the past, and remain a threat up ‘til the final whistle, whereas Italy teams in the past used to fade away towards the end of the game.
 
Ireland have also had a lot of problems this year, having only beaten Wales, and drawn with France, and lost the other 2. They’ve had problems with form and also have suffered a horrendous run of injuries, highlighted by the fact that Jonny Sexton had just returned from injury to be picked against Italy, only to get injured again in training! Sexton may now be out of Lions contention.
 
Declan Kidney has retained the same team that faced France for the Italy game, the only change being Craig Gilroy returns for the injured McFadden (McFadden had originally replaced Gilroy), so it’s pretty much the same team that have been playing all tournament, barring injuries.  
 
Ireland: 15 Rob Kearney, 14 Craig Gilroy, 13 Brian O’Driscoll, 12 Luke Marshall, 11 Keith Earls, 10 Paddy Jackson, 9 Conor Murray, 8 Jamie Heaslip (c) 7 Sean O’Brien, 6 Peter O’Mahony, 5 Donnacha Ryan, 4 Mike McCarthy, 3 Mike Ross, 2 Rory Best, 1 Cian Healy.
Replacements: 16 Sean Cronin, 17 David Kilcoyne, 18 Stephen Archer, 19 Devin Toner, 20 Iain Henderson, 21 Paul Marshall, 22 Ian Madigan, 23 Luke Fitzgerald.
 
I was surprised at the team selection, I have to say. I thought Kidney would have chosen to rest some players (eg Ross, Best, Ryan, the back row (6-8), Murray, O’Driscoll, Kearney. O’Driscoll especially, who suffered a bad knock against France). Those players need a rest, as they have tough games coming up in the Rabo and Heineken/Amlin tournaments.
 
I’m not saying that Italy will be a walk-over, far from it. I just think that the top players need a rest as the season isn’t nearly over yet. I think Ireland will have a tough time beating Italy, escpecially with the injuries we’ve incurred and we’ll need to improve on the performance against France, and be more clinical.
 
It was bit of a mixed performance in the French game. Ireland showed a big improvement on the performance against Scotland. Paddy Jackson, especially, appeared much more confident, and was more successful in his kicking. Murray played his best game of the season so far, and Best’s throwing was much better.
 
Ireland went into the 2nd half with a 10-3 lead. But, once again, Ireland were unable to maintain their form, or lead, and allowed France back in the game. The game finished a 13-all draw, which is okay in some respects (I thought that we’d lose by 10 points), but Ireland again threw away a match they could have won, which is becoming a habit.
 
The French game took its toll on Ireland physically with both centres having to go off. Neither looked great, although O’Driscoll made a herculean effort in returning to the battle (not an exaggeration. He certainly looked the part with a huge bandage almost covering his head). Eoin Reddan replaced Conor Murray at scrum-half only to get a broken leg and have to be taken off!
 
Kidney’s coaching must again be called into question. His selection process is flawed (why take Murray off when he was our best player), Ireland’s seeming lack of motivation or match fitness (why do we always come undone in the 2nd half. We’ve hardly scored any points in any of the 2nd halves in these games) is on him.
 
Wales hope to retain their Championship by beating England, whereas the English are hoping to win their first Grand Slam in 10 years. It should be quite a game. England have yet to lose a game, though they looked pretty ropey against Italy (though it was a depleted English side) whereas Wales have only lost against Ireland.
 
England have been successful with their usual, 10-man style of play (forwards and half-backs kicking for territory), while Wales have been more expansive, using the best back-line in the tournament, though they haven’t always pulled it off. Wales will have the home advantage, which helps a lot against England, especially if that home is Cardiff.
 
The match also has an added dimension in reference to the Lions tour. Both Chris Robshaw and Sam Warburton are the top contenders for the Lions openside flanker (7) roll, along with Ireland’s Sean O’Brien. And Lions captaincy as well, though Warburton won’t be captaining Wales in the match.
 
Both players have shown strong leadership in the past, but also have their weaknesses. Warburton is injury-prone and can be inconsistent (though he played his best game in a long while in the defeat of Scotland, where he took over the captaincy). Robshaw can make poor decisions which can hurt against a team like Australia.
 
One bit of good news is that they won’t be facing off aginst Pocock, who’s been injured and wont’ be playing in the series for Australia. He’s considered the best openside in the world. It’s a shame, though, for the fans as it would have been great to see him in action against the Lions.  
 
The fact that they’re is no clear favourite can also affect their chances of captaining the Lions, as the captain needs to be someone who’s assured of their place. Most of the positions are hotly contested and the only player currently that can be assured a test spot is probably Brian O’Driscoll, provided he remains injury free, which looks doubtful at the moment.
 
England have a low-risk style which should help them in a game which is sure to have a lot of pressure. England have a younger team, though, and this will be the biggest challeng they’ve faced. The game will be real test of their maturity and big-match temperment, which might also affect their Lions’ chances, Owen Farrell especially.
 
France have had one of their worst seasons in memory, losing 3 and drawing with Ireland. Their selection also seems flawed (Freddie Michalak is having a poor season and should be dropped). Scotland are doing better having won 2 of their games, and lost the other 2. Certainly an improvement on last year when they were bottom of the table.
 
France will be looking for a big performance, especially as they’re playing in front of a home crowd, and the French can be the most unforgiving of spectators. I would bet on France been able to put on a good show, but there’ll be a lot of pressure on them, and if they lose than coah Saint-Andre may be given his marching orders, France have only won 2 6 Nations’ games since he took charge, out of 10.
 
The club vs country debate should be addressed in France though. The clubs have too much powere over the players. France’s poor results are partly due to the fact that there best players aren’t rested during club games and so don’t have enough energy to perform at international level.
 
On a happier note, Ireland’s Women have won the Six Nations title (the inaugural Women’s Six Nations actually) already, despite the fact that they’re is still one match to go, against Italy. Ireland are now going for their first ever Grand Slam and the match will be on RTE, on Sunday at 2).
 
It’s going to be quite a weekend of rugby action, as on Monday, the Leinster Schools Senior Cup final takes place, with, current holders St Michaels (my alma mater) facing Blackrock. I have to say I’m completely partisan about and hope that Michael’s win. Blackrock denied me my only ever chance at a cup-winners medal when my Junior 3rds (under-15) team were beaten by ‘Rock in 1994. It still hurts!

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